Transparency as a democratic imperative

Photo courtesy of Ramblin Reck Club

Our democracy is built on transparency and accountability. When you remove this bedrock, everything that we have built on top of it begins to crumble. This is why we have the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), and why each one of all 50 states has their own Open Records Act (ORA).

Recently, legislative transparency in Georgia took a big hit. A court of appeals confirmed a lower court’s decision that the State Legislature and its offices are not required to provide citizens with its records under the ORA.

What this means is that notes taken during legislative sessions, studies done by legislative offices, records kept and any data collected are not in the public domain, even though the officials responsible for their creation are elected.

The fact that we, the citizens, cannot access the records of the officials that we elect to write our laws is a problem.

Without this ability, we cannot oversee them or see the intent behind the laws. This is especially a problem after the Citizens United decision in the Supreme Court, which affirmed that corporations were, for most legal purposes, entitled to personhood.

Corporations and special interests can now donate to political campaigns with basically no oversight. The ORA lets us see into our government, but we need to see how our legislators work to ensure that they work for the citizens.

This is not to say that the ORA is perfect aside from the legislative loophole. It is superseded by all federal laws regarding the keeping of records and also includes 14 pages of exceptions in a 23 page document.

This means that there are many important records that, while they are maintained by the government, are not available to the public in spite of popular interest.

There is also the issue of payment. Transparency is hindered by the fact that the ORA makes those asking for records pay for the finding, printing and delivery of those records. Those fees can reach into the hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars depending on the quantity of records requested. This represents a significant barrier for those individuals or groups without the funds to pay, which can hinder important work.

The ORA is not the first instance of the state government attempting to shut their doors to the general public.

In a case going to the US Supreme Court, Georgia’s attorneys are arguing that the annotated code of Georgia should not be available to the public. The code contains all of the state laws, and the annotations provide the necessary context through which the laws are interpreted.

The law should be available to all, just like the records maintained by our government. Lawyers are expensive, and having the ability to interpret the law is helpful for all citizens in their interactions with the government, whether it’s through the police, the courts or a landlord. More transparency makes it easier for citizens to navigate government, and to call it out when it oversteps.

The bright side in all of this is that the lack of transparency isn’t the last word. The decision that makes the ORA not applicable to the legislature is based in the law, which means that it can be changed.

Please pay attention to the case of the ORA as well as that of the annotated code of Georgia as they make their way through the courts. If you live in this country, they impact you. If the decision about the ORA is upheld in higher courts, then the solution is to organize and change the law.

Sign a petition. Call your legislator. Make our government more transparent. Hold the government accountable.